Everyone knows about the thousands of men and horses that were sent to France to help the war effort between 1914 and 1918. Less well-known is that over 900 London buses were ‘called up’ and served as everything from troop transports to mobile pigeon lofts. Their drivers went, too, and this is the story of one of them. However, it is a play of words, not action – no bangs, no flashes – telling its story through dialogue and letters. The script is largely factual and, if occasionally it teeters along the brink of sentimentality, only once near the end does it lose its footing.
The bus driver is Jim Swift, played beautifully by Michael Doyle. On stage almost throughout, he must endear himself to the audience from the start and Michael’s interpretation brings out his sweet nature, his conscientiousness and his vulnerability. If Michael slowed down a little and concentrated on clarity of diction, his performance would be even better. He has a touchingly tolerant relationship with his curmudgeonly father, played by John Langridge, and makes allowances for his tearaway younger brother, Billy, a most promising performance from 13-year-old Alex Newman.
Sally-Anne McKenzie makes a sweet Vera, Jim’s fiancée, although there is a strange lack of chemistry in their scenes together. As her father, Chris Davis keeps the Yorkshire accent up well. The musical highlight is a cameo from Maggie Soares as Vesta Tilley singing ‘Burlington Bertie’.
The scenes succeed each other almost seamlessly on a very spare set, backed up with projected images. Given the lack of physical action, this increases the challenge to the director, but Clive Rigden gets it absolutely right by keeping things simple and distracting from the words as little as possible.
The most interesting device of the play is the two historians (Ieuan Luker and Kim Walker) who from time to time break into the emotional story and connect it to reality by giving the dry, factual background. Thanks to them, the play is as much about the nature of history as it is about the story being played out and the characters being portrayed. World War 1 is a good example to choose: your view of it varied according to whether you were in the trenches, a general perusing the ‘butcher’s bill’ or at home waiting for a loved one to return. Then there’s us, looking back at it with the benefit of 100 years of hindsight. This conflict is well illustrated just before the end of the play when, for the first time, the historians advance to the centre of the stage and engage Jim directly in conversation.
The wicked waste of life, which has to be a theme of anything written about World War 1, is summed up in this play when Jim writes home, ‘There’s no good reason for anything the Army’s doing out here, as far as I can see.’
There are further performances on Friday 26 October at 7.30 and Saturday 27 October at 2.30 and 7.30.